The Lives of Others

I’ve had the pleasure over this last year to visit and work in five countries I had not previously visited. We all carry preconceptions about a range of things when travelling into the ‘unknown’: culture, the structure of society and business, the level of English spoken, the food we will eat, etc. However in reality, where there may be differences in the way our lives have been conditioned, fundamentally people are the same the world over, want the same things, and have similar needs.

The second time I travelled to Russia in 2002 it was to deliver product training to our nationwide distributor. The venue was St. Petersburg where the company wanted to combine its own tenth anniversary with the 300th anniversary of the city’s Charter, something I didn’t fully appreciate until the first training day in the wonderful Marble Palace. It was followed by a bus tour of the city that involved regular beer stops as we headed towards a celebratory evening meal. I passed on the beer because I knew passing on the vodka later would not be an option!

As we tucked into the wonderful food the toasts began, frequently interrupting eating proceedings. Impressively delivered in a language sadly I don’t have, each toast seemed detailed and was delivered with both panache and a high degree of emotion – higher, the more the vodka flowed. And then it was my turn. What actually was I going to say to a large group of inebriated Russians? I kept my sober delivery reasonably brief and respectful, after which there was a small silence. It turned out they had expected more! While my brevity didn’t harm the evening, it did remind me of the importance of researching some of the cultural dos and don’ts before joining my overseas selling partners in such milestone celebrations.

In the last year or so I have travelled to Kosovo, Macedonia, Mongolia, Ukraine, and Moldova. Each experience has been ‘the same but different’, with perhaps the biggest difference being between the ebullience of the Macedonian delegates and the reticent respectfulness of the Mongolians. But essentially, all delegate groups were keen to learn and experience new techniques from a perspective that may challenge their own, all wanted to learn about family, music and art, talk about their pets, and enjoy food and drink together. None of them understood why the UK would have chosen to leave a Customs Union that their respective countries wanted closer ties with, and I’m with them on that.

In Ukraine and Moldova this year there were different issues to accommodate. During my few days in Kiev, a Russian opposition politician was gunned down outside a hotel about a mile away from where I was staying and in the east of the country the sabotage of an arms depot caused an evacuation over a 20km radius. The political undertones were never far away, though at no point did Kiev feel threatening. I walked the short distance up the hill each day to the training venue and everything felt very normal in spite of the tensions that lay beneath the surface.

In Moldova I had the delight of attending a twice yearly wine fair in the opulence of a marquee in a central Chisinau park whose area was bounded by poverty on a scale I had not previously seen in Europe. Naturally I sampled a fair few different grape varieties, in the process of which I noticed there was one part of the marquee that wasn’t getting the same attention as others. There I sampled wine from one of the country’s oldest established family vineyards from Trans-Dneister, which broke away from Moldova in 1992. While this separation has never been internationally recognised as a separate state, Trans-Dneister occupies a long, narrow strip of border land between Moldova and Ukraine and is supported by Russia. Moldova itself leans more towards Romania, and improved trading relations with the EU. So tensions remain in the air.

As you travel the world you will experience obvious cultural differences and less obvious ones. Selling to architects in North America will mean changing some of the English language on your promotional material and because of the different paper size, you may also need to provide the correct size of sample folders so that yours can be displayed on the same shelves as competitive products. Otherwise, they are too long and will need to be laid flat outside their familiar alphabetical storage system.

Whether the differences are political, logistic, or cultural, it is essential to learn something about the countries you are planning to visit. My next two trips are a return to Kosovo and then another to Georgia in November. I will refresh my knowledge of Kosovo, and have already requested English language versions of articles on the business structure in Georgia. Apart from being respectful to have some knowledge of the places you are visiting, this also reduces the potential for cultural gaffes – and maybe next time I’m with my friends in St. Petersburg it will be their toasts that are considered a little short!

Article written by John Reed - Associate of Strong & Herd LLP

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